Continuing my series of mini-reviews on the short stories to be found in the charity War Doctor anthology, Seasons of War, edited by Declan May and published by Chinbeard Books.
Tom is a university student in Australia. This week, along with a few fellow students, he has accompanied his professor, one Professor Skellern, to a private retreat at a secluded beach, a retreat that the Professor makes every year on the same dates, although no one has ever thought to ask him why. It’s all going well, until this morning, when Tom spots a strange man—and a strange blue box—on the mostly-private beach.
The man only seems more odd when Tom approaches him. He watches the ocean, and grows annoyed when interrupted, but only mildly so; at the suggestion that he has come to watch the whales in the Pacific, he spouts the most amazing nonsense about whales among the stars. Tom is sure he’s mad, until the name of Professor Skellern comes up; and suddenly the man reveals that he knows far more than anticipated about the professor. When Professor Skellern arrives at the beach, things become truly strange. Did Tom just see the professor’s eyes change? He wants to investigate further, but he finds himself unable to move, his feet tied up in some preternatural seaweed that paralyzes him in place. And as he watches, the professor points to the water—which begins to split like the Red Sea.
A coffin, or rather, a coffinlike structure, sits on the now-bare seafloor. Through its translucent surface can be seen a body. The professor and the strange man both decline to explain, but Tom has at least grasped that this isn’t really the professor; maybe it’s the newly-sprouted gills that gave it away, one can’t be sure. He witnesses as the two argue; it seems the strange man somehow gave the professor-creature an extra decade of life, but now the debt has come due. The stranger makes his explanation, and Tom realizes that it is for his, Tom’s, benefit as much as for the creature’s. He explains that there is a massive, nearly-eternal war out among the stars…and he is about to end it at last. He knows now how to do so, though there will be a price to pay. In the meantime, there are loose ends to tie up, and Professor Skellern is one of them.
The coffin opens, and Professor Skellern—the real Professor Skellern—climbs out. For him, it’s only been moments, though in the world, ten years have passed. This is what the strange old man—the Warrior—gave him, though the reason remains to be seen. As Tom watches, the professor-creature transforms into a wondrous, humanoid, fishlike being with rainbow scales.
The creature explains that his world was annihilated in the Time War, and quite by accident, he himself survived when the Warrior’s TARDIS materialized around his ship. The laws of time were broken in the process, and thus the Warrior was able to save him, but only temporarily. He struck a deal for more years for the creature, but at the end, when the Warrior is about to end the War, he must return him to the place and time from which he took him. Meanwhile, the professor—an old friend of the Warrior from the time when he called himself the Doctor—was dying of a disease with no cure. The solution, then, was to allow them to change places for a time. Now, both of them, it seems, will go to their deaths. The creature, though perhaps bitter about it, accepts his fate and enters the coffin, thanking Professor Skellern for the time and the opportunity. The waves return over it as it prepares for transport.
When the coffin vanishes, Tom is freed. He hurries to catch the Warrior at the blue police box. To his surprise, the Warrior gives him an envelope:
“When I’m gone,” said the old man, “give it to Professor Skellern with my…gratitude.” He smiled. “Once upon a time, in a different life, he thought me a savior, a strong man, someone who fought for the underdog. This war has changed me in more ways than one. My morals have become…scrambled, and are very shortly going to get worse. I want him to remember me as I once was.”
The box vanishes, carrying the stranger—and the coffin in the ocean—with it.
Tom gives the envelope to Professor Skellern. Inside he finds a photo of Skellern and a younger man—clearly the Eighth Doctor, though Tom would not know that—bearing an inscription: “This man is gone forever, please remember him and live his ideals.” Despite this, Skellern is quite sure the Doctor—having become something else entirely—has let him down.
And yet, as Tom sees, there is something else inside the envelope: a newspaper clipping. It bears news of a cure for a certain disease, a recently-approved cure…for the disease that is killing Skellern. This, it seems, is what the bargain was really about: one being, the last of his race, obtained ten more years of life…and another had his life restored to him.
As they leave the beach, Tom ponders these events. This man, this Warrior, this Doctor…Tom is glad he doesn’t know him as Skellern once did. And yet, he thinks, he will return here…in case one day the Warrior does the same.
It’s nearly over now, and the Doctor knows it as well. He has made his decision, and made such peace with it as can be had, though that’s little enough. All that remains is to tie up the loose ends, as he says here. We as an audience won’t get to see all of those ends—and there is room there for more stories, should anyone be so inclined—but we get this one, and that’s enough for now.
It’s a little difficult to place this story, other than to say it is near the end of the War. It’s especially hard to do so, given that the next story—and I’m spoiling things a bit by saying so—takes place in the middle of George Mann’s novel Engines of War. Still, my personal opinion is that this story should properly take place after that novel; it’s during the events of the novel that the War Doctor makes his famous “No More” declaration, which I take to be synonymous with his decision to use the Moment. We’ve seen before that he’s already been pointed toward the Omega Arsenal, though I am unsure if he’s actually aware of the Moment at this point. He makes that choice after the death of his companion Cinder, and then—like the Tenth Doctor after him—makes his rounds, tying up loose ends and saying goodbye. (I suspected at first that Professor Skellern might be a character pulled from a past adventure, but I could find no indication of it; it seems to be another of the many adventures that happened “off-screen”.)
Other than that, the story is fairly standard fare, though I don’t mean that as an insult. Rather, I simply mean that nothing revolutionary happens here—we learn nothing new about the War, or the War Doctor, given that we’ve known for a long time where he’s headed. Instead, this is simply a good, clever story, and one with a happy ending despite the pall that hangs over it from the impending Moment. Happy endings are in short supply these days, and we’ll have no more until it’s over. I like that ending, though; in just a moment’s time, it changes the Doctor from a calloused, tired old man to a last-minute, ingenious hero again. Doctor Who has always been fantastic for those endings, and this one is a nice, and even sentimental, touch.
The Beach was written by Gary Russell. Next time: The Moments in Between, by George Mann. See you there.